OPINION: Interactive spots must offer more than a phone number

Now that clients have recognised the huge potential of interactive commercials, Mischa Alexander argues that phone numbers can have a creative validity in spots

Now that clients have recognised the huge potential of interactive

commercials, Mischa Alexander argues that phone numbers can have a

creative validity in spots

Howell Henry Chaldecott Lury consistently produces ads that encourage

viewers to engage in further dialogue. Now that I’ve repeated this

‘interactive’ gag, is it flogging a dead horse or does it signal a new

era of communication?

The agency has built a reputation for pioneering interactive

commercials. More than six years ago, First Direct was launched using

the interactive device of offering viewers the choice between two

commercials that ran simultaneously on ITV and Channel 4.

Since then, ads for Mazda, Mercury Communications, Tango, Martini and,

most recently, the HHCL Brasserie and McCain have all used phone numbers

to encourage people to become more involved. So is this consistent use

of interactivity passe? I think not.

The use of a phone number in a commercial that isn’t for a conventional

direct response TV advertiser isn’t a creative idea in its own right.

It’s just another structural part of the execution.

A phone number serves a practical purpose in exactly the same way that a

pack-shot does, and it exists to deliver a particular objective. This

shouldn’t be confused with the core creative idea.

What a phone number brings is the opportunity to become involved with a

piece of communication above and beyond its initial reception. It

provides another layer to the communication that, if pursued, should

prove rewarding in its own right.

But it’s not a prerequisite for appreciating core communication. A good

analogy is the multi-level video game. You can enjoy a game for what it

is intended to deliver at its most basic level, without needing to

progress to other levels. However, if you move on to higher levels you

become more involved with the game and, subsequently, you get more out

of it.

So, taking the recent McCain’s Pizza execution as an example, the core

idea is the fact that you get more topping - it’s not about getting

people to ring a number.

Unlike conventional direct response executions, the construction of the

ad centres on the communication of the core idea, and not on ramming

home the need to pick up the telephone. The phone number isn’t even

voiceovered, an omission that in encouraging a direct response would be

a cardinal sin. The phone response option is there as exactly that - an


However, this sort of option needs to be attractive. In the McCain ad it

exists as a piece of gratuitous fun. If you want to take part and vote,

great. If you don’t want to, that’s your freedom of choice.

Amazingly, this low-key option has generated more than 250,000 calls in

only four weeks. It’s a tremendous bonus for the McCain brand to have so

many consumers decide, of their own accord, to enter into a dialogue.

You don’t need to be Mystic Meg to foresee the impact on sales that this

sort of involvement will generate.

Suddenly, for this voting group, a passive piece of broadcasting has

been transformed into a new brand experience through a dynamic piece of

dialogue. And, of course, the opportunity for further direct dialogue

with this self-selected group now exists.

At Howell Henry, we believe that creating communication that provides an

opportunity for active brand experiences, rather than just passive

broadcast messages, is going to be a key issue for all future


But I know some will ask if this is just a fad. Well, even ignoring the

onslaught of digitised new/multimedia and its innumerable interactive

possibilities, consider these two facts: in the US, 83 per cent of all

branded goods carry a 1-800 number, and more than 80 per cent of evening

TV ads carry a phone number.

Mischa Alexander is managing partner of the HHCL Brasserie